Never have I ever been more livid at finishing a game than Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core on the PSP. Staring at the credits in order to assign blame for this travesty, my head was a storm of feelings that I couldn’t fully put into words. Now, with some time away and no longer being a teenager, I want to go over the game’s narrative that so fully filled me with rage. Thankfully, wonderful folks down over on the internet have the full cutscenes of both the original and the remaster. I’m not here for debate. I’m here as an old school FFVII fan with a chip on their shoulder, so let’s mosey.

The following contains spoilers for Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core. The game contains instances of war, suicide, and body horror.

FFVII: Crisis Core is a prequel to Final Fantasy VII, following the story of Zack Fair, Shinra SOLDIER First Class, the tragic hero that saved FFVII‘s protagonist, Cloud. His moment of rescuing Cloud can go completely unnoticed unless you poke around a previous area of the game in FFVII. I’m all for expanding on the life of this man, who was someone Cloud admired and ultimately another victim of Shinra’s encroaching power. But like all the complications of FFVII, we needed a big, bombastic, gaia-shattering event! I am gonna complain that it wasn’t a tighter story centering on our doomed protagonist.

Before I start tearing into this game, I want to make it clear that I’m not going to make a judgement call on any one person as responsible for how it shook out. Games are a collaborative process that take years to create. I also think the experimentation of the gameplay was a good first step into new ways to take the Final Fantasy series. Not to mention having “Conflict Resolved” play after every battle was hilarious. The cinematics were well done and the little emails you could receive in the main story and side quests added a nice personal touch. I even like Cissnei and Lazard before they ultimately get shuffled aside. But that’s it for the stuff I liked!

Now, without further ado, let’s start by talking about Zack, shall we?

Zack Fair stands next to Lazard sitting in the Shinra SOLDIER office. Zack says, "To become a hero!"

Zack Fair is a Huge Idiot and Not in the Fun Himbo Way!

I had to play through this guy not connecting the dots that he’s directly related to the tragedies happening around him. Now, to be clear, the only time canonically we see him rebel against things in the original is when he literally has to try and stop Sephiroth—the other First Class SOLDIER—from burning down a town. So for all intents and purposes, he was a loyal soldier boy to Shinra throughout his time there. But that doesn’t mean the game can’t tip its hat to us and remind us that we’re hanging out with the baddies at Shinra. And, that doesn’t mean there can’t be nuance in regards to how people get sucked into bad systems or perpetuate them. Especially, say, a rural youth who wanted to find better prospects in the big economic power that was Midgar city.

In the small moments we see or hear about his personality in the original, Zack comes across optimistic, brash, and a bit of a flirt. He does seem to have shounen protagonist vibes out the gate. So making him a bit happy-go-lucky isn’t an issue, normally. It does become an issue, though, when you have him excitedly chopping down Wutai troops whose only crime is not wanting a Mako Reactor in their backyard. He, at one point, tells a young Yuffie to get somewhere safe, completely forgetting he’s the freakin’ threat! I expected the game to perhaps comment on the job he’s doing and, hell, having Yuffie there could have driven the point home. But no, we only started and it’s just a fun cameo. Haha, our hero is colonising you!

Which brings me to Zack’s drive to join Shinra’s SOLDIER division. He wants to be: a hero! Now, this isn’t surprising. This is similar to Cloud’s and a lot of other young men’s dreams during the war time. I felt this was a smart move on the narrative team’s part because it mirrored real world propaganda about the fame one can achieve in war. In Crisis Core, it’s treated as earnest and innocent. Zack wants to be a hero for good reasons! What are those reasons and what do they mean? Who knows! He just says it and doesn’t elaborate. The game’s journey is supposed to be him learning what being a hero means, but it’s done in a melodramatic and honestly insulting way. Oh, we just gotta stop the villain and all will be well. He never questions his actions, and any time he has a moment of doubt, someone happily reminds him that he has his honour as a SOLDIER. You see, it isn’t the uniform he wears, it’s his heart! He’s showing us what a good cop—I mean, SOLDIER looks like.

I’ll get more into those actions later with the narrative, but I think I should move on to the other characters that have lines in this play…

A close up of Angeal's face with his head bowed down and the blue sky behind him. He says, "My mother...could not continue to live. And neither can her son."

Angeal, Our Resident Centrist Full of HONOUR!

We’re introduced to Angeal right in the first training mission of the game. He’s our cool-headed commander already in the position of First Class SOLDIER (all members of SOLDIER are infused with Mako and some Jenova cells, more on that later) and current owner of the iconic Buster Sword (which he doesn’t bother to use because honour). He’s a foil to Zack’s impulsiveness, always reminding him to slow down and approach the battles methodically. He also reminds us to never forget our dreams and honour. As soon as he said “honour,” I knew he was going to betray me. I’m aware that I’m probably missing out on some cultural context for him. His character seems to intentionally evoke ideas of Bushido, ancient codes of samurai conduct, like chivalry. And if so, much like the code he lives by, it’s total bullshit.

Basically, Angeal’s code is: I don’t like fighting with my friends but sometimes I do because I can’t just admit I need help. He couldn’t live with himself anymore calling himself a monster, due to being another of Shinra’s attempts at creating super soldiers using Jenova cells (the same Jenova who is a major antagonist of FFVII). He flips between fighting his longtime friend, Genesis (the antagonist of the game and a similar victim of experimentation), and deciding he can’t and forcing Zack to kill him. Angeal reforms his body into a manticore-like being and demands that Zack put him down. All the while Zack is confused as to why his old friend would ask this.

It’s not that you can’t write a self-destructive character, it’s that his story is thread so uncritically it hurts. He is unwilling to let go of his sense of self and sees no way out. He chooses a suicidal route, just as his mother did, unable to live on, unable to dream of something better. And he’s happy to have his friend do this favour for him.

Having Angeal be treated as honourable even at the end left a bitter taste in my mouth. His essence in other beings continues to protect Zack through Jenova cell copies. Speaking of copies…

A close up of Genesis' face looking at his Loveless book. He says, "Ripples form on the water's surface the wandering soul knows no rest."

Genesis is That Theatre Kid You Hate.

Soooo, Genesis. Created by Shinra as “Project G,” he’s basically a Sephiroth redux, too. Except he was the first! The game really really wants to sell you on this super secret production of Shinra that was hinted at in Dirge of Cerberus. With Jenova cells mapped onto him unsuccessfully in utero, he goes through a revelation that his body is degrading due to the experiments and burns his hometown—sound familiar? He’s obsessed with an old epic poem called “Loveless” that he believes contains a secret meaning involving the gift of the Goddess.

And if you’re new to this game but have played FFVII, you might be saying, “Hey, I know “Loveless”! That’s the play from Midgar!” And you’d be right, if they hadn’t decided to say the play was based on a really epic poem that is on par with Shakespeare in this world. Except the poem sucks, here ya go, check it out in its entirety.

The man constantly quotes the damn thing anytime he shows up. Like that friend who won’t stop singing Rent songs at lunchtime. All the while antagonising Zack and using clones of himself to launch attacks around the world. They wanted Sephiroth’s situation but didn’t want to go through the trouble of building Genesis up. He’s just the same story; he hates Shinra and attacks them but comes across annoying at best. He’s able to make clones with the help of a redo of Hojo’s character, Hollander, a Shinra scientist. I’m also not impressed that they used the real-world musician Gackt as the basis of his character. It felt like they were trying to tie in something else because they knew Genesis was too shaky on his own.

Who’s Left in This Trainwreck?

In expanding Zack’s and other’s roles, I feel they also put a bit of a damper on some of our faves in the future. Let’s start with Aerith. Zack first meets Aerith when he falls through the Church in sector 5 slums (sound familiar?). She’s scared of the… sky. It’s so big, and she doesn’t think she could handle looking at it. I feel like there’s a certain way some people write teenage girls where they either act like much younger children or they’re salacious. Zack helps her gain confidence and is even the one who suggested she sell the flowers. I honestly hate this, because you’re telling me Aerith, a girl who lives in the slums, didn’t think to sell plants that are next to impossible to grow there? Oh! I also totally believe they messed with the timeline a bit so we didn’t have an awkward age gap between Aerith and Zack.

Cloud’s here and what about him? Well, he’s our country baby boy who likes that Zack chats to him… but he’s a little too cute, in my opinion. Remember, when Cloud left Nibelheim he was still a bit of a jerk, picking fights and trying to show he was better than someone else. We get so little of Zack and Cloud’s bonding that I can barely call them friends. I feel like there’s a real issue of writing men’s friendships in the Final Fantasy games as of late that boil down to fist bumping the dude next to you and that’s it. It’s not that I don’t believe that can happen in real life, but would it kill the game to build up some social link-like events where I hear these two talk about their feelings and dreams?

Zack with his arms outstretched stands next to Cloud in his security uniform. They both are standing on a snowy mountain. Zack says, "Me and Cloud are both backwater experts. Oh yeah!"

Country bois

There’s Cissnei of the Turks, who I believe appears in the Japan-only cellphone game Before Crisis. She was literally raised in Shinra, so more child soldiers yay. I think her story could have been used to highlight how hard it would be to leave, since her life is owed to Shinra. She’s never known anything else and considers the people around her family. Despite this, she’s supportive of Zack and takes subversive actions in order to protect him. When I think on the game, I think kindly of her.

Lazard is the director of SOLDIER (in FFVII this job gets taken over by another director, Heidegger). Posh and present, he’s regarded highly by the people under his charge. It’s revealed that he’s the illegitimate son of President Shinra and is actively trying to destroy the company from the inside as revenge for his mother. His anger is framed as a personal, rather than a political attack. He was another character I liked, because his motivations made sense to me. But no, we can’t have somebody interesting (and hot). He gets infused with Angeal cells for… some reason and becomes a chilled out clone who wants to help Zack.

Those are, in my opinion, the major players of our story. Yes, there’s Sephiroth, we’ll get to him, but I’m trying to set up the new guys so you can understand how they ping around this pinball execution of a narrative. There’s a couple of others that play supporting roles including the OG Turks, like Tseng. Hollander, as I mentioned before, is another Hojo scientist heavily implied to be Angeal’s biological dad (what a plot twist). And a SOLDIER friend named Kunsel, who has to tell Zack everything because Zack can’t be bothered.

That’s our rag-tag crew. Pretty much all Shinra related… You’d think with how much they wanted to redo FFVII character arcs they’d have added Avalanche (the group Cloud joins in FFVII that fights Shinra) references. But that might’ve come too close to giving Zack a critique and making him look bad.

Anyway, join me next time when we dive into the shallow pond that is Crisis Core‘s plot!